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Reform oil and gas rules before allowing new leases

By Michael Murray and Paul Reed

Our national parks and monuments are full of rich history and culture and some are sacred ancestral homes to Tribes – like the Navajo, Hopi and Puebloan peoples — who have stewarded these lands for millennia. Their cultural legacies span thousands of years and, with proper protection, will endure for generations to come. But right now, national parks and monuments are under threat from the relentless push to develop and drill more wells on public lands near sacred areas and some of our most treasured landscapes.

A recent report by Archaeology Southwest and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks detailed the damage caused by the amount of oil and gas drilling allowed under current leasing policies adjacent to five national parks and monuments: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As it stands, the antiquated federal oil and gas leasing system allows oil and gas companies to lease and drill right up to the doorstep of these national parks, jeopardizing irreplaceable cultural sites, artifacts, public lands and wildlife.

For example, oil and gas companies have been allowed to drill over 37,000 wells and lease 92 percent of the public lands in the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. As a result, oil and gas wells, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure have severely damaged long stretches of the Great North Road, an ancestral Puebloan corridor that runs through the park, and transformed other cultural sites into industrial parks. Chaco Canyon is designated as a World Heritage Site because of its cultural significance to the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest. Ancient villages and shrines throughout Chaco connect tribes today with their heritage. These sacred sites must be protected.

Oil and gas development and drilling also surrounds Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where 75 percent of the Little Missouri National Grassland has been leased to oil and gas companies. In Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed plans within the past decade to make more than 10,000 acres of public land surrounding the park available for oil and gas leasing. Along the border between Colorado and Utah, tens of thousands of oil and gas wells have been sunk in the area surrounding Dinosaur National Monument and there are over 140 orphaned wells within 30 miles of Hovenweep National Monument.

The Biden administration and Congress both have the power to permanently reform the leasing system by establishing new rules and policies that require the Bureau of Land Management to close public lands to leasing in the areas surrounding national parks and monuments and Native American sacred sites, establish protective designations and develop consultation protocols with tribes to ensure these irreplaceable cultural resources are safeguarded for generations to come.

There are already proposed protective measures that can be moved forward to safeguard these landscapes as soon as possible. New Mexico’s congressional delegation can and should reintroduce the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would provide permanent protection for the Greater Chaco Landscape by preventing any future leasing or development of federally owned minerals located within ten miles of the park’s boundaries.

Similarly, the Department of the Interior must also move forward with a proposed administrative rule-making that would withdraw federal lands from new federal oil and gas leasing and development within 10 miles of the park for 20 years. These are approaches that could be pursued to protect similar areas across the country, keeping unnecessary and destructive drilling away from sacred and historic sites.

The threats to these irreplaceable landscapes are very real, but so are the options for protecting them. We urge President Joe Biden, his administration and Congress to implement meaningful reforms of the federal oil and gas program before any new leasing is authorized. America’s heritage is at stake.

Michael Murray is chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and Paul Reed is preservation archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest.